Getting a Spot in Translation Hall of Shame

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Серая мышка: plain Jane, average Joe

When I was following life in Russia by surfing RuNet every day, I came across an article about the French trader who lost Societe Generale $7.2 billion. Since I had read about five articles in English without understanding a word of it (especially why the guy hadn’t made a centime off the deals), I hoped that the Russian media would be more illuminating.

Wrong. The article informed me that the wily fellow покупал и продавал контракты на поставку обычной ванили (bought and sold contracts for shipments of ordinary vanilla) and noted that since world vanilla trade is nowhere near $7.2 billion, it was obviously a scam. I read that and moved on to the next story, which just goes to show that in economics, я полный кретин (I’m a total moron.)

The next day the Russian translation and finance blogs went wild. It turns out that the trader had been making “plain vanilla deals” — “plain vanilla” being English-language slang for anything run-of-the-mill. The Russian translator had turned “ordinary” into “shipments of vanilla” and instantly earned a spot in the translation hall of shame.  

Other than making me realize that I really must read “Экономика для чайников” (“Economics for Dummies”), it made me think about Russian expressions for ordinary people and things.

There are plenty of adjectives: обыкновенный (ordinary); обычный (usual); рядовой (run-of-the-mill); заурядный (mediocre); стандартный (standard, commonplace); ординарный (ordinary); средний (average); простой (common, simple, plain). Пресный is most commonly heard in the combination пресная вода (fresh water, that is, drinkable, not sea water), but it also means anything bland and boring, like пресная еда (bland food) or more figuratively, пресная проза (insipid prose).

A nice old word is дюжинный (ordinary), usually heard in the negative form недюжинный (outstanding). It seems to have come to Russian from the French douzaine (dozen), which was puzzling: How did 12 evolve to mediocre?  One source hypothesizes that unscrupulous French traders — apparently in a tradition that extends from apples to hedge funds — sold things by the dozen and stuffed the bag with less than the best. Frankly — no pun intended — this all sounds fishy to me, but that’s all I can come up with so far.

In Russian, mediocrity is the color gray — серый — which can be used to describe anything that is without vivid characteristics. Серая мышка (literally, “a gray mouse”) sometimes refers to appearance, particularly with women. One Russian bloggerette moaned: Я — средняя. Обычный рост, вес. Обычная фигура. Я — серая мышка. (I’m average — average height and weight, average figure. I’m a plain Jane.)

But серая мышка can also refer to mediocrities in talent or ability. Some other bloggers offered a minority opinion on the Russian political scene: Если Путин серая мышка, то его преемник серая мышка в квадрате. (If Putin is just an average Joe, then his successor is an average Joe in spades — literally, “doubled.”) One of them calls Dmitry Medvedev “никакой” (nothing special, undistinguished).

You could also describe a human cipher as ничем не выдающийся человек (someone who doesn’t stand out in any way), or say: Он ничего особенного собой не представляет. (There’s nothing at all special about him.) Or you can call someone так себе (so-so), ни рыба, ни мясо (neither fish nor fowl) or ни то, ни сё (neither this nor that).

You can also use a comparative construction with как to describe something that has no distinguishing features. How boring is it? It’s so boring that it can’t be compared with anything. For example, that poor female серая мышка continues her list of boring physical traits: Волосы как волосы, глаза как глаза (Hair — nothing special, eyes — nothing special).

As for me and economics, I’m worse than mediocre.  Я — полный ноль. (I’m a complete zero.)

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.